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Banksy, Art, and Syria’s War

By Taylor Marvin

The famous British street artist Banksy has released a short video satirizing the Syrian civil war. The video, a minute and a half long, depicts two rebel fighters firing at an arial target with a MANPADS, or shoulder-fired anti-air missile system. Shouting Allahu Akbar, the rebels down an aircraft and run towards the crash site. The ‘aircraft’ is then revealed to be an animated depiction of the Disney character Dumbo the flying elephant, dying in pain. A child, dismayed at Dumbo’s death, kicks the fighter who fired the MANPADS, who falls clutching his shin in pain.

Washington Post writer Max Fisher has a thought-provoking post examining the video, which has been criticized by many. Fisher attributes the video’s odd tone to liberal internationalists’ conflicted relationship with a war where no armed faction seems worthy of support, and any intervention is perceived to carry imperialist overtones. “There’s been a real hesitancy among leftists like Banksy to embrace the Syrian opposition, which is reflected a bit in his choice to skewer the rebels, portraying them as murdering beloved children’s cartoon characters,” Fisher writes. But the murderous Assad regime is if anything even more unworthy of leftist’s support. “There’s no good guy for them; Islamist rebels – especially ones who might receive support from the West – are the closest they can get to a pure bad guy.” As Fisher notes, this bird’s-eye view of the Syrian war makes taking any stance beyond simply decrying the loss of life difficult; the only firm position taken by the international leftists Fisher associates with Banksy has been opposition to US or NATO entry into the war. Of course, this opposition is similarly fraught; while the efficacy of proposed airstrikes is unclear, opposing Western intervention in Syria means at best admitting that the killing will continue, as will Russian and Iranian aid to the Assad regime. It is perhaps this confused position that explains leftist’s adoption of the “endless war for empire” rhetoric better suited to their narrative of the lead-up to the Iraq war than the Obama administration’s real dilemma in Syria.

Fisher attributes Banksy’s muddled message to this awkward balancing act, which leaves caricatures of Islamist fighters as the only channel for satire left:

“Unlike his West Bank work, it’s not really dealing with the conflict or its larger issues, even from a one-sided ideological perspective. It’s not getting to the core issues, but rather sticks on one of the few aspects that European and Arab leftist movements feel comfortable addressing, and ignores all the rest. That doesn’t mean the video is bad or wrong as a piece of political art, of course. But it’s an interesting lens into a larger ideological movement’s struggle to figure out how it feels about a conflict that has killed over 100,000 people and displaced millions.”

I think this is certainly true. Crafting artistic depictions of wartime that do not endorse or denounce any one side is extraordinarily difficult, particularly within the constraints of a 90 second viral video. But I also think Banksy’s narrative choices take his work beyond the “awkward” and into outright unsettling.

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Admittedly, I know very little about Banksy’s wider work and believe that the video’s intended reading is a statement on how Syrian adults’ warfare makes childhood impossible, an artistic message emphasized by the closing image of the child kicking the MANPADS-armed fighter. But this simple denunciation of the horrors of warfare is contradicted by other elements of the video’s symbolic toolkit. Importantly, Banksy chose to associate Dumbo, the murdered children’s cartoon character, with airpower, one of the few element of military force that the regimen enjoys a complete monopoly over. Syria’s rebels fight with small arms, rockets, armored fighting vehicles, and potentially even chemical weapons (a common but very unlikely accusation disseminated by the Assad regime’s messaging and global news organizations like RT). But only Assad can operate military aircraft, and regime fighter aircraft bombing rebel forces and civilian neighborhoods in relative safety is one of the defining image of the war. Moreover, denying the Assad regime the use of its monopoly on airpower — either through a No-Fly Zone or airstrikes targeting the regime’s air force — is one of the most-discussed options for a potential Western intervention.

Given this monopoly, Banksy’s choice to incapsulate the Syrian war in a depiction associating regime airpower with a symbol of childhood is striking. I don’t believe that this can be read as even an indirect endorsement of the regime, but it is in my mind a clumsy attempt to satirize the conflict. But Banksy has taken on a difficult challenge. In the midst of a war between a brutal autocratic regime and an increasingly-disunified opposition, Syria is fracturing along ethnic lines with any losing side facing the prospect of brutal retaliation by the winner. Ultimately, the tragedy of the Syrian war breaks any mode of satire, except for complete cynicism.

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